Erasmo Aiello’s Panettone
Busts all the Stereotypes of the Christmas Tradition
Monterey County Herald by Brenda Moore, Herald Staff Writer
Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006
If the word panettone conjures up images of brick-like fruitcake, you’ve never had
Erasmo Aiello’s panettone.
Airy. Golden. Sprinkled - not stuffed, with fruit.
Aiello, a fourth-generation baker, spent nearly two decades perfecting his recipe for the
Cake-like, sweet bread that’s Christmas tradition in Italy. Now his panettone is so good,
He ships it to his relatives in the Old Country.
But you don’t have to be family, or on his mailing list, to try his panettone. Aiello bakes about 1,000 every Christmas Season at Palermo Bakery, the European bread company
he co-owns with his brother-in-law in Seaside.
The bakery is a Wholesaler, with most of its breads sold to area restaurants and stores.
The panettone can be found at Sweet Elena’s Bakery & Cafe in Sand City, or
Monterey Produce Market in Monterey. Aiello also sells some for $8 a piece at
Palermo Bakery, if you get there before noon. Or you can place a special order,
like his neighbor did. She’s picking up 120 to give as gifts, and she’s not even Italian.
“Even Americans have started liking it,” Aiello said. Or at least the way he makes it traditionally, painstakingly, and almost entirely by hand, by himself.
Aiello makes his first batch of the season just before Thanksgiving. Then every few days through most of December he’ll make another batch, 150 of the tall, round cakes each
The process starts near dawn on one day, and finishes about 1 p.m. the next.
In between are a series of steps developed over years of trial and error:
cracking and separating a staggering 660 eggs, and combining them with other
Ingredients including bread flour, butter, sugar, honey, cocoa butter, raisins, candied
orange peel and a special panettone flavoring from Italy.
In the process there is mixing, kneading, resting ﴾the dough, not the baker﴿, rising,
mixing, kneading, resting and more rising. More than 24 hours after the process starts,
Aiello shapes the yellow dough into round loaves and puts each into a tall paper
baking mold that resembles a crown.
Then they are left alone again to rise midway up the mold. When they reach the
right height, he carves an “X” in the top of each loaf so it blooms during the baking,
then places them on baking trays on rolling racks.
Finally, the racks are rolled into three side-by-side industrial ovens that are taller
than Aiello. Inside the ovens, the racks rotate in a circle like the cars on a carnival ride,
evenly distributing the heat. The loaves bake about an hour, rising like souffles
over the tops of the molds until they resemble giant mushrooms.
When the timers ring and the loaves look just right, Aiello rolls out the racks and readies the bread for cooling hanging each two-pound panettone upside down to keep it
from deflating. Aiello and his brother-in-law and business partner, Rosario Zito, have
the hanging procedure down to a dance. Aiello plucks a loaf off the pan, flips it upside down, and Zito spears it near its base with a metal rod; They repeat the process
until there are four loaves on a spear, then hang the spear from a rack, the breads
That’s the way it’s done in the old country, Aiello said. His aim is to produce the
panettone of his childhood in Italy, something he couldn’t find in the United States
after he emigrated in 1982. Panettone is believed to have originated in the 15th century
in Milan. According to one popular legend, it was created by the son of a nobleman who had fallen in love with the daughter of a baker named Toni. To impress the girl’s
father, the young man pretended to be a baker, got a job in the bakery, created the soon to be sought after bread. and named it Pan de Toni, or Tony’s Bread.
When Aiello first decided to bake the holiday bread, he called his brother, owner of an
upscale pastry shop back home near Palermo on the island of Sicily, for help.
His brother sent a recipe, and Aiello spent years tweaking it until he was satisfied.
“The recipe that he sent me, I was adjusting things all the time,” Aiello said. “I write it
down if I discover new things. The last two years, I’m very, very happy.
“Actually the beginning was very, very bad,” he said. He couldn’t find the paper molds. He couldn’t get the flour right. There was trouble with the mixing time. Then it
didn’t rise right. Each season resulted in new notes scratched on that original recipe.
Part of the reason it took so long, was that he was only doing it one season of the year.
“I could fix it ﴾faster﴿ if I do it every day,” he said. He could also do it faster if he had help, but he’d rather do it himself.
“I really want to do a good job,” he said. If it doesn’t turn out, “I can’t blame anybody but me. When they don’t rise good, I can’t even look at it.”
But mostly, these days they rise just right: tall and airy, their interiors webbed with air
pockets, not solid and dense. The first time he sent his panettone to family in Italy,
he said, “they were so impressed, even the pastry chef” who works for his brother. And this is a tough crowd. Aiello comes from a long line of Bakers, following in the foot- steps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
In some ways, his career path is surprising. He left Italy to get out of the family
business, exhausted after 13 years, of 11hour days, with no days off, of bread baking.
He arrived in New York and took a job in a pizzeria. It was still the food industry,
but compared to the old days, it was a piece of cake: a five-day workweek, of eighthour days.
After about three years, he and Zito, his brother-in-law, came to Monterey
to visit relatives and were talked into moving and opening a bakery. Zito was one of
the first people Aiello met when he arrived in New York. They became brothersinlaw when they married a pair of sisters, then business partners in the bakery. By the time it opened, Aiello was ready to return to the family business.
“Actually, then I loved it,” Aiello said. “I came up with a lot of new recipes. We were
making two or three kinds of bread in Italy. I came here, and started making all kinds.”
That first venture was a retail shop on Munras Avenue in Monterey. Then, in 1994, they became wholesalers, catering to restaurants, hotels and some retailers from here to
San Francisco from their shop on Fremont in Seaside. The hours are still long,
but they’re manageable and Aiello has even found time for another thing he loves
singing opera. He’s a Tenor, and performs in the Monterey, and San Jose areas.
But mostly, he and the Bakery are known for the breads – 20 kinds of doughs, in many shapes, styles, and sizes and the panettone.
The holiday treat is traditionally eaten on Christmas or Christmas Eve or even on New
Year’s Eve with a glass of champagne, Aiello said. But, he said, it can keep for about
three months if stored in a cool place. He once came across a loaf in his garage that
had been tucked there a year earlier.
“It was still good,” he said. “It lost some of the moistness, but it was still good.” In some places, fancier versions of the bread are being made.
“My brother makes them now with chocolate, with rum, with cream,” he said. “But he
still likes this one when I send it.”
Brenda Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-4462.